Post-modern, post-Christendom, post-industrial, post-colonial, post-secular – commentators on transitions impacting Western societies often resort to “post” words to describe these.
Observers of church life identify post-evangelical, post-charismatic, post-denominational and post-institutional developments.
These words refer backward, not forward, telling us where we were, not where we are going, but insisting that things are changing. Sadly, “post-truth” has joined their ranks, creating a necessary but regrettable climate of suspicion.
Times of transition present challenges and opportunities for our society and our churches.
If we are hidebound by traditions and inflexible in our responses, we will become marginalized and moribund.
If we react simplistically and uncritically to an emerging culture and lose our moorings in searching for “relevance,” we will betray the gospel and lose our integrity.
We can learn from previous generations who experienced transitional eras, including early Baptists in the maelstrom of 17th-century England and Anabaptists in the turmoil of the 16th century.
New strategies, priorities, structures and practices are pioneered in such periods, along with fresh ways of understanding Scripture and doing theology. Transitional times are unsettling but exciting.
A transition the Christian community in Britain is experiencing, but on which we have not yet reflected deeply, is from majority to minority. Christians across the Western world are likely to have a similar experience in the years ahead.
There are different ways of estimating the size of the Christian community – membership, attendance, affiliation, beliefs, practices – but all now indicate minority status. This provokes numerous questions – theological, institutional, financial, strategic and practical.
How do we interpret this change of status? Where is God in this? What forms of church life are needed now?
What is the social and political vocation of a minority Christian community? What activities can we no longer sustain? What should we do differently?
How do we nurture and sustain disciples in minority communities? How can we use our still considerable resources in more creative ways?
The significant issue is not that we are a minority – many Christian communities across the world are minorities – but an ex-majority minority, which presents different challenges.
Reflecting on this transition, I wrote “A Vast Minority.” I drew on material presented on the Crucible course, which encourages participants to think like cross-cultural missionaries in a transitional era.
Here are some of the challenges we face:
- Can we simplify church life so that we stop burning out our members by trying to maintain unsustainable programs and release energy for mission?
- Can we be more intentional about nurturing disciples? Are sermons and singing enough? Can we reimagine our churches as “communities of discernment and resistance”?
- Can we make better use of resources by reducing duplication? We don’t need four English Baptist colleges.
- Can we prioritize and resource pioneering, risk-taking and experimental initiatives, rather than safety-first strategies?
- Can we embrace pruning alongside planting and move beyond a survival mentality to an authentically missional perspective?
- Can we learn to speak and act as a ‘prophetic minority’ rather than a supposed ‘moral majority’?
- Can we respond theologically and missionally, not just pragmatically, to our changed status and changing context?
- Can we seize the opportunity to think afresh about the nature and scope of the gospel in contemporary culture?
Perhaps there is an analogy, as many suggest, between our experience and that of the Israelite exiles in Babylon.
If this was God’s intention – “I have sent you into exile” (Jeremiah 29:4,7) – and had a profound and beneficial impact on them, maybe minority status could be salutary for us too.
Perhaps we also need to heed Jeremiah’s counsel: Don’t hanker for the past, don’t despair, don’t expect quick solutions, but settle down and seek shalom for those around you, not just your own community. Trust God in a time of transition.
We have no choice about being a minority. Whatever we were and might become, this is our current status. But we can choose what kind of minority to be.
We could be a frightened, despondent and beleaguered minority preoccupied with survival and disconnected from the rest of society.
Or a fragmented minority, drawing lines in the sand to exclude others and exhausting ourselves with infighting.
Or a belligerent minority, protesting whenever our sensibilities are offended or our interests are threatened.
Or a compliant minority, watering down our truth claims, giving no offense, allowing ourselves to be co-opted in return for appreciation.
These deeply unattractive futures are present realities in some sections of the Christian community. We need a more compelling vision.
But minorities can do things majorities cannot or will not. Minorities are less concerned about reputation, social standing, numerical strength and institutional stability.
They aren’t hamstrung by needing to succeed or maintain control. They have less invested in the status quo, so they can question what most regard as “common sense,” imagine new possibilities and pioneer new initiatives. Minorities can be creative, prophetic and hopeful.
Baptists and Anabaptists emerged in times of transition as creative minorities. Maybe it is time to reclaim our heritage.
Stuart Murray Williams is a trainer and consultant with the Anabaptist Network in the United Kingdom, author of several books on mission in post-Christendom, one of the national coordinators of Urban Expression and director of the Centre for Anabaptist Studies at Bristol Baptist College. A version of this article first appeared in the Autumn 2017 edition of Baptists Together magazine – a publication of the Baptist Union of Great Britain. It is used with permission.